As a young middle schooler, I recall The Pacifier starring Vin Diesel. Here was this musclebound Navy SEAL forced to essentially babysit a bunch of kids as part of a top-secret mission. Little did I know that this was a subgenre within the action-comedy realm. While The Pacifier wasn’t the first in a line of ‘bodyguard teaming up with a child’ action movies, it certainly wouldn’t be the last I’d witness. Now, after months of release date pushbacks, Dave Bautista joins the ranks of John Cena, Dwayne Johnson, and Vin Diesel in the latest addition to the subgenre, MY SPY. And, while minutely entertaining, I wouldn’t say it’s the best usage of his improving comedic talents.
The film follows JJ (Dave Bautista), who is a CIA operative who has a high opinion of his abilities, but little to show for it. After blowing an operation that takes place in Chernobyl of all places, JJ gets demoted to do recon with his new assistant, the overly eager, hero-worshipping Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) in Chicago. You see, there is an illegal arms dealer Victor Marquez (played by a criminally underutilized Greg Bryk), who lost the plans to his brother for a mini nuclear bomb.
The CIA thinks that his sister-in-law, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and her daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman), may know the location of it. However, it does not take long for JJ and Bobbi’s cover to be blown because, as I mentioned above, JJ has a high opinion of his abilities, but also lacks the ability to be subtle or inconspicuous. I mean, JJ’s ability to hide cameras in their apartment speaks of this. When you can’t hide it in a way that a nine-year-old can’t find it, there’s something wrong with your subtlety skills. It’s not long before the precocious young Sophie puts two and two together, realizes that these people are watching them, and threatens to blow their entire cover.
The plot from here turns to more familiar territory. Sophie blackmails both operatives, but mostly JJ, to spend time with her and, as time passes, convinces him to teach her to become a spy. While some would argue that she convinces him through charm, I find that it’s more through persistence with a hint of potential sociopathy. Because, as you guys will see while watching, Sophie is a bit too good at picking up on JJ’s lessons. To an almost concerning degree. Her intellect though, while proven to be useful in the realm of a spy, ends up making it difficult for her to make friends. JJ sees this and starts to warm to her, as he too is also a lonely soul that seeks to have companionship outside of his fish one day. As time passes by, they grow closer.
However, the danger is always looming on the horizon. As tensions over the missing mini nuclear bomb heighten, JJ and Sophie will find themselves making difficult choices. With Victor Marquez doing everything he can to acquire those plans and with other parties wanting their hands on their plans as well, no one is safe. Will their bond prove to be an impediment or an improvement for both of them? For the sake of this cursed thing called spoilers, I’ll refrain from answering that question.
I’ll start off with the positives, as there aren’t all that many in this latest film from director Peter Segal. It’s so nice to see Dave Bautista expand upon his comedic skills, leaning into that straight-faced seriousness and great timing that we were exposed to in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Paired up with the hyped-up energy from Kristen Schaal’s Bobbi or the precocious, manipulating energy Chloe Coleman brings to her Sophie, it makes for decent comedy. Coleman takes a while to build that charm necessary to sell a character like Sophie. However, she really shines once we get halfway through the film and JJ is starting to train Sophie for spy shenanigans. I would like to see Bautista and Coleman get paired up for projects later on with better material. I imagine that they would shine more brightly without their characters being taken on different directions outside of what their personalities would pursue otherwise.
With what Parisa Fitz-Henley is given as Kate, she makes good work of it. She builds a character that we can immediately picture in our minds. She is the mother trying to make ends meet while simultaneously mourning the loss of her complicated husband and trying to be there for her daughter and not succeeding at it. However, the potential for her character gets lost a little when dragged into a romantic subplot with JJ as a part of Sophie’s many all-over-the-place plans. As for Greg Bryk‘s Victor? Look. I’ve seen Bryk in a lot of things. The man is good at embracing villainy. However, the character of Victor is so one-note that there’s not much in the way of being able to elevate it. I don’t know if it’s an editing issue and there might be scenes on the cutting room floor but, with so much build-up surrounding the big bad Uncle Victor coming after Sophie and her Mom, I just expected more.
What ultimately does more harm than good to MY SPY is the writing. At times, the script itself isn’t sure what exact direction it’s going in and it shows in the handful of subplots that get thrown into the mix. First Sophie wants JJ to teach her the ways of being a spy which, for a girl that is written to be intelligent, seems rather out of character already. Then she changes her plans to push JJ and her mother together. This change in direction reads as odd and, while on paper it would make sense for a girl who has recently lost her dad, it feels out of place on screen. Throw in all of this together, it ends up pulling away from our focus from the real conflict (i.e. Victor Marquez in all his villainy). The return back to the Victor plot just ends up feeling like a sidenote added back into the mix because someone remembered where the story started. In the end, it just feels disjointed and lost at times.
In terms of who the intended audience is for MY SPY, I am not entirely certain. There are certain funny awkward moments like JJ trying to dance in public and it ends up going viral due to its sheer badness. And, every now and again, there are jokes that actually land. However, the written attempts at humor make it hard to pin down who the screenwriters, Jon and Erich Hoeber, were trying to make laugh. I’d argue it’s not dumbed down enough or cushioned enough for younger kids, especially in a film that actually has quite a bit of violence in it. But teenagers and even some adults aren’t going to find what’s available funny either. They might find it more awkward than funny and, when the awkwardness can’t be laughed off, that is troubling news for an action-comedy film. Even more so, when it is apparent that neither the screenwriters nor director Peter Segal has an idea of who exactly their target audience is.
MY SPY is an addition to the bodyguard/child subgenre that isn’t doing anything to improve or take away from the subgenre. It just is. The film hits all of the checkmarks in terms of what to expect while also still simultaneously making you roll your eyes in the process. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just there. If you do watch it, watch it for the actors who try to lift the writing beyond what it is. Because, while they are not delivering Oscar-worthy performances, they are at least trying to do something with the material they have been given.
MY SPY will be available for streaming on Amazon on June 26, 2020.